Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 30, 2021

Eric Blanc, the Finnish Revolution of 1918 and Voting Democrat

Filed under: Counterpunch,DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky,reformism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm


Eric Blanc

Seven years ago, Eric Blanc’s “National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands”made quite a splash, at least within the tiny world of Marxist scholarship. I welcomed a defense of those caught in the Czarist prison-house of nations, especially those that hoped to make revolutions themselves. At the time, Blanc had not yet become a Social Democrat. Therefore, there were little inklings that “the borderlands” would become a lynchpin for his aggressive attacks on revolutionary socialism that made their most recent appearance recently in a Jacobin article titled “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons From the Russian Revolution”.

The “right lessons” turned out to be that the only “plausible path to socialist transformation in parliamentary countries is a radical form of democratic socialism.” And guess what that “radical form” amounts to: “socialists should only take executive office like presidencies during a socialist revolution.” In other words, Lenin was all wrong. He should not have fought for Soviet power but waited as if the “socialist revolution” were an embryo in the ninth month. Blanc would still insist that he is an orthodox Marxist, but Karl Marx made it patently clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat would not rest on “executive office.” Instead an armed people would rule in their own name—the Paris Commune, in other words.

Continue reading

March 29, 2021

The use and misuses of Ralph Miliband: a reply to Chris Maisano

Ralph Miliband

As a member of the Bread and Roses DSA caucus, which functions as an informal think-tank for Jacobin, Chris Maisano shares the heavy lifting of producing ideological justifications for work in the Democratic Party with fellow caucus member Eric Blanc. Both have elevated Karl Kautsky into a pantheon after the fashion of my generation worshipping at the altar of Trotsky, Mao, Castro or even Stalin. Lately it came to my attention that Kautsky’s star has fallen a bit in the Democratic Socialist firmament, to be replaced perhaps by Ralph Miliband, the editor of Socialist Register until his death in 1994.

Before delving into Maisano’s wrongheaded attempt to turn Miliband into a lodestar for the current epoch, it is worth saying a word or two about who Miliband was and what he stood for. Born in 1924, Miliband was a Marxist intellectual and a secular-minded Jew who fled Nazi persecution with his family. As refugees in England, the Milibands lived in a working-class neighborhood and barely scraped by. His introduction to radical politics was through Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth group. From there, he evolved into a Marxist academic after graduating from the London School of Economics. It is reasonable to state that Miliband was a forerunner to Leo Panitch, another Jewish Marxist academic who assumed the helm of Socialist Register after Miliband’s passing. Although many of SR’s articles become available online, it is primarily a paywalled academic journal just like New Left Review, with contributions by academic leftists writing for others in their professional orbit. I never had any idea that SR existed until getting on the Internet in 1991 at Columbia University.

Despite sharing Karl Kautsky’s rejection of socialist revolution except through parliamentary means, Miliband’s ideology reflected trends that became fashionable in the 1960s, especially state theory. Alongside Nicos Poulantzas, Miliband was preoccupied with the question of how capitalism could be superseded on a basis other than what Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Trotsky advocated. This is obviously the same concern that the Jacobin/DSA think-tank has given its rejection of what it regards as “insurrectionary” illusions.

In a famous debate between Poulantzas and Miliband, they offered clashing views on how a non-revolutionary strategy might work. For Miliband, the state functions to serve capitalist interests because of the class basis of the government and the personal ties and influence between members of the government and ruling-class elites. His perspective showed the influence of C. Wright Mills, who was a friend. As for Poulantzas, he offered an Althusserian analysis of the state, which prioritized “structure”. It didn’t matter which class occupied government posts. It was the capitalist system that dictated which class interests were upheld. I haven’t read much Poulantzas but his writings on fascism were persuasive, given their ability to explain how Hitler—despite his class origins—could create a system that satisfied German big business. Of course, their debate had very little impact outside of the academy.

Maisano first made the case for Miliband in a polemic against Philly Socialist’s Tim Horras in a 2019 article written for The Call, the Bread and Roses magazine. Titled “Which Way to Socialism?“, its subtitle warned against “insurrectionary strategies” as if Tim, a librarian by trade, was out drilling with an AR-15 on the weekends. Maisano cites NYU sociology professor Jeff Goodwin to make his case:

As Jeff Goodwin reminds us in his comprehensive study of twentieth century revolutions, “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”

And to drive the point home, he buttresses Goodwin with a blast from Miliband:

There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.”

Is there a possibility that highly-placed academics who spend perhaps 8 hours lecturing per week and making over $140,000 per year might not be in the best position to hold forth on the working class being non-insurrectionary? In fact, it would probably be a good idea to retire the word insurrectionary since it is such a red herring when it comes to revolutionary strategy. Marx never wrote about insurrection, after all. That was more the bailiwick of Bakunin and the anarchists who never gave much thought about drawing workers into a mass movement.

More importantly, Maisano was citing a Miliband article written in 1978 and titled “Constitutionalism and Revolution: Notes on Eurocommunism” that hardly spoke to our contemporary situation. Miliband drew a picture of “Leninist” groups that people like Bhaskar Sunkara and Chris Maisano would guffaw at:

In a broader perspective, it is obvious that conditions in advanced capitalist countries would have to become enormously worse, in ways which it is at present difficult to envisage, for the necessary basis of mass support to be engendered which would significantly advance the prospects of a “vanguard party” bent on an ultimate seizure of power. Those groupings which see themselves as embryonic (or actual) “vanguard parties” do in fact work on catastrophist assumptions, and expect that economic collapse, the replacement of bourgeois democracy by some form of authoritarianism and fascism, and even war, will eventually bring about the necessary conditions of revolutionary success and make it possible to repeat the Bolshevik scenario of 1917.

By 1978, there were few on the far left who thought in such terms. After seeing the roadside detritus of the Maoist and Trotskyist groups, most Marxists had already begun to rethink the “democratic centralist” formulas that had led to sect-cult formations. This is not to speak of the political deep freeze that could hardly be ignored with Jimmy Carter in the White House and cocaine flooding the discotheques. In essence, Miliband was beating a corpse over the head.

Even if “vanguard” parties had bitten the dust, it would have been a mistake for Miliband to view 1978 as a permanent state. Between 1978 and 2021, a period of 43 years, catastrophist assumptions and economic collapse have become realities. Keep in mind that if the Communist Manifesto seemed out of whack with bourgeois normality in 1848 (except of course for those pesky struggles against feudal remains), 1889—41 years later—would have set the stage for the imperialist rivalries that would bring capitalism crashing to its knees in 1914.

This, of course, is the fatal flaw of Jacobin/DSA. It expects to see a renaissance of the Scandinavian welfare states when they are already being dismantled. Even with Joe Biden’s bailout and proposals for a massive infrastructure investment, we are facing a Sixth Extinction according to some of the world’s leading scientists. Does anybody expect that such catastrophic threats can be overcome by electing liberal Democrats, even if they like to call themselves socialists?

Whatever Miliband’s flaws, respects have to be paid for his insistence on the need for socialism. Just like Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin’s Socialist Project, Ralph Miliband created the Socialist Society in 1981 in collaboration with Raymond Williams to help launch a socialist party that could challenge both Labour and the Conservatives. The Socialist Society involved New Left Review leaders like Tariq Ali and worked closely with the British Trotskyists of the Ernest Mandel-led Fourth International. Like Peter Camejo’s efforts to develop a non-sectarian left in the USA, it was a product of its time. Unfortunately, the Socialist Project and before it The Socialist Society lacked the foot-soldiers of a mass movement to turn this dream into a reality. You can see the harbingers of such a mass movement in BLM that most leftists identify with, even if Jacobin/DSA continues to provide a platform for Adolph Reed Jr.’s academic sect that warns about BLM being a tool of the corporate elite rather than the most important Black struggle organization since the 1960s.

Turning now to Maisano’s latest on Ralph Miliband, an article written for the DSA magazine titled “A Left That Matters” (a briefer version appears in Jacobin), it restates the Jacobin/DSA think-tank’s by-now calcified support for the Democratic Party:

I was more sympathetic to arguments against tactical use of the Democratic line before the catalytic effects of the Sanders campaigns became fully clear. But the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now. Whether we like it or not, working-class organizers will continue to use major party primaries so long as they exist and bear fruit. Though the Democratic Party establishment proved to be cohesive enough on a national level to defeat Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign, traditional party organizations at the state and local levels are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out. In many cases they cannot effectively defend themselves and their incumbents, and can’t depose insurgents after they win office through election on the Democratic Party ballot line.

After this bedraggled post-Michael Harrington argument is put forward, Maisano summons up the ghost of Ralph Miliband to give it the stamp of authority. Once again, we hear about the sectarian left as if it were 1971 or so: “The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy.” For Christ’s sake, who is this directed at? Like a creature from outer space, particularly the green Jell-O like monster in “The Blob”, the DSA has already absorbed the ISO and is about gobble up Socialist Alternative for dessert.

Maisano would have us read Ralph Miliband’s 1976 article titled “Moving On” just to make sure that we have learned our lesson properly:

The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the U.S. context, they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action as well as a dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party.

If you take the trouble to read Miliband’s article, you’ll see that much of it is directed against the Labour Party. Indeed, most of his career, as I pointed out earlier, was devoted to creating a non-sectarian socialist party that would finally leave the dead-end of Fabian Socialism behind. Just substitute the words “Democratic Party” for “Labour Party” and you’ll understand why poor Ralph Miliband would be spinning in his grave if he was aware of the words Chris Maisano put in his mouth, so much so that a transformer attached to his big toe could probably serve Phoenix, Arizona’s electrical needs for six months at least. This is not to speak of the fact that Labour broke with the Liberal Party in England, their equivalent of the Democratic Party. Oh, did I mention that Eric Blanc advocates staying with the Democrats for as long as possible based on the “success” of Labour only breaking with the Liberals after far too many years of tail-ending a capitalist party?

Inevitably, one must start with the Labour Party. There cannot now be many socialists in the Labour Party (and even fewer outside) who believe that most of its leaders are concerned with the task of effecting the ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’ of which the Labour Manifesto spoke in 1974. But there are many socialists in the Labour Party who do believe very firmly that they can eventually and by dint of great pressure compel their leaders to adopt left-wing policies and even to translate these policies into practice; or alternatively that they can bring to the leadership of the Labour Party men and women who will want to adopt and put into practice such policies.

There is no point in rehearsing here arguments which have been endlessly canvassed as to whether this is a realistic prospect or not. That controversy has gone on for three quarters of a century, that is ever since the Labour Party came into existence; and insofar as it cannot be conclusively proved that the Labour Party will not in any serious sense be turned in socialist directions, the chances are that the controversy will go on for a long time to come, without leading anywhere. My own view, often reiterated, is that the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone. But this is not what I propose to argue yet again here. It will be more useful to take up some of the more important considerations which are commonly advanced by socialists for working in the Labour Party, whatever the odds, and for not looking farther afield.

August 7, 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara “The Socialist Manifesto”: a review

Filed under: reformism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm


To get a handle on the theoretical foundations for Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the best place to look is in the Acknowledgements where he gives his props to a sociology professor:

“I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much I’ve learned from New York University professor Vivek Chibber over the years. If he’s a great chef, I’m doing to his recipes what Chef Boyardee did to pasta. I happen to like SpaghettiOs. I hope you do too.”

Chibber is the editor of Catalyst, a high-toned theoretical journal that is part of Sunkara’s burgeoning publishing empire. Two years ago, in a special issue of Jacobin devoted to the Russian Revolution, Chibber’s article “Our Road to Power” summed up this great chef’s understanding of what the fight for socialism amounts to today:

The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens…If this is so, then the lessons that the Russian experience has to offer — as a model of socialist transition — are limited. Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital — rather than vaulting over it. This entails a combination of electoral and mobilizational politics.

Using a language in keeping with his Chef Boyardee credentials, Sunkara said about the same thing a decade ago when he said farewell to the Marxism list I moderate: “I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.”

If you were about building a left-oriented publishing empire, the last thing you needed was an albatross chained to your neck like the Russian Revolution. The New Yorker Magazine, a symbol of middle-class complacency if there ever was one, interviewed Sunkara about his new book in April and inadvertently indicated their shared preferences through a perceptive question:

Your book also evinces a certain respect for reformist, rather than radical, politics, and you write that you are aware of “how profound the gains of reform can be.” So why is Sweden insufficient? I think a lot of people would look at Sweden and say, “O.K., it’s not perfect. It can get better. But it’s about as good as any society that humans have been able to construct.

Sunkara does have a thing for Sweden. In chapter five (The God that Failed), he describes it not only as the most livable society in history but one in which socialists made more headway against capitalism than any other European country in the post-WWII period. One supposes that this might be news to people who lived in Eastern Europe where capitalism was abolished under Soviet occupation. While it is true Swedes enjoyed political freedom, it was only in the Eastern bloc where the capitalist class was expropriated.

Sunkara’s capsule history of 20th century Swedish history is a cherry-picking exercise. The Social Democratic party is extolled as defending the interests of the working class in constructing a “people’s home” for the entire population. The folkhemmet, Swedish for people’s home, sounds rather benign—like a Norman Rockwell painting of people at a Thanksgiving Day dinner.

Folkhemmet was a key to the eugenics program that Gunnar and Alva Myrdal espoused. It blurred the lines between the family unit, the state and the seemingly progressive character of the welfare state that the social democrats promoted. Between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women to be sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.

Under folkhemmet, the goal was not to overturn property relations but to reduce the differences in income between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. Isn’t this what attracts people like Bernie Sanders to Swedish “socialism” even though it has little to do with Karl Marx’s call for revolutionary change?

Like the New Deal, Swedish social democracy historically was a deal between the rich and the state to fund welfare programs to mollify a restive population that was attracted to the USSR, where unemployment had been eradicated and public services were abundant. Sweden even developed a brand of deficit spending to kick-start the economy after the fashion of John Maynard Keynes.

Between 1932 and 1976, Sweden was ruled by social democratic governments that were a poster child for the kind of socialism Sunkara advocates. What he does not mention were the circumstances that led to the first elected social democratic government. In 1931, sawmill workers in Adalen organized a general strike for better pay and working conditions. In a peaceful march on May 14, they were blocked by the police and army from reaching the barracks where scabs were being housed. They were finally stopped in their tracks when a cop opened fire on the strikers with a machine gun, leaving five dead and many wounded. There was such outrage throughout Sweden over this massacre that voters elected the first in a series of social democratic governments. The irony is that the workers were mostly Communist Party members or supporters, according to most historians. The Social Democrats banned members from attending the funerals of those on May 14 because they were seen as sympathetic to the Communists.

During WWII, Sweden managed to stay aloof from the anti-fascist military campaign that most historians regard as largely dependent on Soviet arms, materiel and manpower. Aloof might not be the most appropriate word in this instance since Sweden allowed the Nazis to use their railways to transport troops to the Eastern front for the invasion of the USSR. The two very blonde and Aryan nations bonded together economically during the war. Between 1933 and 1943, nearly 25 million tons of iron ore was sold to the Nazis while Sweden bought German coke and coal, as well as German weapons that by all accounts were very cost-efficient. In November 1934, Hitler admitted that without Swedish iron ore, Germany would not be able to make war.

Does Sunkara know anything about this? If he did and cared not to factor this into his love poem to Sweden, then shame on him. It is entirely possible that given the long hours he puts into his publishing empire, he simply does not have the time to dig too deeply into Swedish history or any other history for that matter. As we continue our stroll through the Socialist Manifesto, this will become glaringly obvious.

Chapter four (The Few Who Won) of The Socialist Manifesto is conventional anti-Communist history with the mandatory observation that Stalinism had its roots in Bolshevism. After reviewing all of the well-known Stalinist distortions imposed on Soviet society, Sunkara sums up the main lesson: this “model” came to be synonymous with the socialist ideal itself.

To drive home this point, he renders his judgement on “The Third World Revolution” in chapter six. Compared to Sweden, the colonial revolution led by Communists resulted in disasters. Of course, if China or Vietnam were selling iron ore to Hitler during WWII, things might have turned out better. But we don’t deal in hypotheticals, do we?

Like Russia, China gets treated as a violation of democratic socialism, leaving the reader feeling rather deflated. We discover that in the 1950s the backyard steel furnaces were a fiasco and that a campaign against the “four pests” (flies, mosquitos, rats and sparrows) led to a famine. Though pests in many ways, these creatures fed on the grasshoppers that now lacking a natural predator were free to feast on grain. Despite such Maoist bungling, whatever attraction China had as a model all but evaporated after Nixon’s trip to China and the subsequent transformation of China into a capitalist economy, something accepted by most on the left except those intoxicated by Stalinist dogma such as Roland Boer, the Australian theologian who blogs as Stalin’s Moustache.

In the same chapter where China gets a thumb’s down, Cuba is also dismissed, almost as an afterthought. With sixteen pages on China versus the single page that discusses Cuba, you might have expected Sunkara to take a closer look at the one country in the world that is still trying to build socialism. (I don’t include North Korea because it is such a grotesque Stalinist/Confucian outlier.) After acknowledging Cuba’s giant strides in education and health care, he gives it a failing grade for lacking democracy. One has to wonder where he gets his yardstick for passing such judgements. What if Sweden had been invaded and occupied by the USA for a century to prevent it from becoming the welfare state he so admired? If it was finally able to drive out an oligarchy and begin instituting the measures Cubans enjoy, would the Swedes tolerate political parties funding by the USA to overturn the welfare state? I don’t believe in hypotheticals but it is always necessary to put democratic rights into context. Perhaps on a day when he was less subject to anti-Communist thinking, Sunkara might have understood why Cuba had not become an “Open Society”, to use George Soros’s terminology. In this chapter on third world revolutions, he has a brief reference to our hemisphere’s sorry history:

Elsewhere in the Americas, democratic roads to socialism in Nicaragua and Chile, the latter supported by a powerful working-class movement, were blocked by conservative domestic elites and American meddling. The nature of this US interference was not always coups and invasions but also sanctions, trade sabotage, and election rigging. Even where Third World socialist movements had democratic impulses, the experience of those like Allende seemed to encourage authoritarian paths to change.

Referring to Cuba’s “revolution from above” in the very next paragraph, he doesn’t seem to make the connection. As the president of the board of one of the largest Nicaragua solidarity organizations, I have bitter memories of how the USA was able to interfere in Nicaraguan elections. If Cuba had to choose between children being fed, educated, housed and kept healthy on one hand and catering to Human Rights Watch’s litmus tests on the other, I’ll go with the children.

After having covered (or covered up) European, Latin American and Asian history, Sunkara finally gets around to reviewing socialist movements in the USA. In keeping with DSA iconography, Eugene V. Debs gets a clean bill of health. Moving right along, he finds the Communist Party to his liking, not so much for its Stalinism but its civil rights and trade union activism. But he particularly admires their close ties to the New Deal, an alliance that has inspired the DSA’s support for Bernie Sanders who has insisted that his socialism is identical to the New Deal rather than misbegotten Soviet experiments.

Unlike the CP, the Socialist Party advocated a clean break with the two-party system just as Eugene V. Debs did. In the 1930s, it was led by Norman Thomas who was once asked by a reporter how he felt about Roosevelt carrying out his party’s program. His pithy reply was that it was carried out but on a stretcher. Sunkara writes:

But Thomas and most of the Socialist Party clung to its Debsian-era strategy of opposition to bourgeois reformers—class independence was paramount. Thomas saw the New Deal as a “program that makes concessions to workers in order to keep them quiet a while longer and so stabilize the power of private owners.” No doubt this was true, but these reforms didn’t placate workers; they led them to demand more.36

If you check endnote number 36, you’ll discover that it is a reference to Irving Howe’s “Socialism and America”. This is like writing that Trump has been a great president and backing it up with a citation to a book written by Sean Hannity.

Referring to the 1936 election, Sunkara makes Norman Thomas’s SP practically look like the Spartacist League—an ultraleft purist sect that did not recognize the profound realities of American society:

In the 1936 presidential election, workers around the country were making a rational decision to support the Democratic Party, hungry to continue Roosevelt’s reforms and recognizing the institutional barriers to independent politics. Thomas’s cohort couldn’t offer a strategy to overcome any of those barriers or even a way to not counterpoise themselves to the best New Deal reforms. They just had slogans about opposing capitalist parties. Ironically, the more fringe Communist Party was better able to relate to Roosevelt supporters.

To start with, the CP was not exactly “fringe”. In 1936, it had perhaps ten times as many members as the SP and could count on people like Count Basie or Bennie Goodman to play at a benefit for the Spanish Civil War, and even the NY Times for articles supporting the Moscow Trials. In any case, the bigger problem was the CP’s ongoing sabotage of any attempts to start a Labor Party in the USA, something that would have had a great amount of traction in 1936. The New Deal might have been able to provide low-paying jobs in the WPA but it had not broken the back of the Great Depression. To show you the lengths that the New Deal left would go to elect FDR, it helped to create the American Labor Party that while nominally independent placed FDR on its ballot line. It was the same kind of shifty electoral maneuvering that the Working Families Party adopted when it put Andrew Cuomo on its ballot line in the last gubernatorial election. These parties are independent in name only.

The 1960s radicalization that made me the person I am today—for better or for worse—gets about as brief a mention in The Socialist Manifesto as Cuba. There were just as many young people in the 1960s committed to bringing about socialism as there are in the DSA today but the word meant something different to us. It meant abolishing wage slavery just like Radical Republicanism meant abolishing chattel slavery to Frederick Douglass.

Yes, we were fragmented by sectarian notions of who was the genuine continuation of Lenin’s party but we put our lives on the line. For all practical purposes, the attempts to build such parties has come to an end with the self-liquidation of the International Socialists Organization. Many, if not most of its members, have hooked up with the DSA and are as eager to recreate the New Deal as Bernie Sanders.

Sunkara finally gets around to outlining a strategy to establish socialism in the USA in chapter nine, titled “How We Win”. It consists of 15 points that few would disagree with since they are anodyne proposals for the most part. For example, there is this:

The socialist premise is clear: at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life. A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Well, of course. Who could argue with this? The real issue, however, is the same as it has been since the mid-1930s when the largest group on the left became embedded in the Democratic Party. As long as we continue to search in vain for the Democrat on horseback who can ride into the White House and put things right, the real struggle for socialism will be ineffective.

This time it will be different, according to Sunkara:

It will come as no surprise that I’ve been a registered Democrat since my eighteenth birthday—the same day I joined the Democratic Socialists of America. I joined the latter because the DSA reflected my actual political beliefs, the former because I lived in New York and wanted to participate in the only meaningful elections in my area, which were closed Democratic Party primaries. As a registered Democrat, I don’t have the power to influence the party’s politics in any meaningful way: like most registered voters in this country, I don’t get a vote when it comes to my own party’s political platform. But on the flip side, there’s no way for the Democrats to expel me or hold me to a political program. I can spend most of my waking hours attacking the Clintons and other corporate Democrats, and I can’t be disciplined in any way. I can only lose my ability to vote in Democratic primaries in New York if I change my registration or commit a felony and am incarcerated or on parole. Precisely because it is so undemocratic, the Democratic Party may actually be vulnerable to what Ackerman calls “the electoral equivalent of a guerilla insurgency.”

A guerrilla insurgency? Hardly. The Democratic Party has been around since the time of Andrew Jackson and has weathered challenges by “insurgents” going back to its co-optation of Tom Watson’s Populists. What Bhaskar Sunkara and his comrades do not understand is that the presence of “democratic socialists” in the Democratic Party helps to keep its brand alive. Even if Ilhan Omar is the target of racist tweets, even if she keeps Nancy Pelosi awake at night and even if she costs the Democrats the 2020 Presidential election, the “Squad” and Bernie Sanders will help to sustain the illusion that the party can become an instrument of genuine political transformation.

When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2004, Democratic Party lawyers fought to keep him and his running mate Peter Camejo off the ballot across the entire country. The DP elite wants to make sure that efforts to outflank it from the left never get off the ground. If we are serious about launching a true “guerrilla insurgency”, the first step is supporting Howie Hawkins for President in 2020 as the Green Party candidate. Last December Hawkins made the case for independent class politics that would be the first step in reconstituting an authentic socialist movement in the USA incorporating the best that the SP, the CP and even the Trotskyist movement I joined over a half-century ago could offer:

So what would a socialist alternative to the capitalist Democrats look like, both as a program for social transformation and as a movement of the working class for its own freedom? Sanders’s regulatory and social insurance reforms of capitalism do not end the polarization of society into rich and poor flowing from the exploitation of working people. Those reforms do not end the oppression, alienation, and disempowerment of working people. Those reforms do not stop capitalism’s competitive drive for mindless growth that is devouring the environment and roasting the planet. Socialism as a program has traditionally meant economic democracy—social ownership of the means of production for democratic planning and allocation of economic surpluses—as a necessary condition for full political democracy and freedom. But in the absence of a sizable socialist Left that runs its own candidates against both capitalist parties, socialism has been reduced in popular parlance to simply government programs.

These words encapsulate in my mind what a real socialist manifesto would begin to look like. For information on Howie Hawkins’s campaign, go to https://howiehawkins.us/.

July 2, 2019

Butting in to Bhaskar Sunkara’s debate with a Trotskyist

Filed under: Jacobin,social democracy — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Debates between DSA’ers and Trotskyists are few and far between, especially today when Trotskyist groups are gnats compared to the elephantine DSA. Once upon a time, long before the Sandernista left reconstituted itself as the DSA, these debates were more frequent because the relationship of forces was different. The SWP, which is a micro-gnat today, was once the largest group on the left and anxious to defend its ideas against all comers. Although I hate to see even a single penny go to this grotesque cult today, Pathfinder’s collection of 3 debates titled “The Lesser Evil?: Debates on the Democratic Party and Independent Working-Class Politics” is only sixteen dollars and would be useful reading today. It contains Peter Camejo’s legendary standoff with DSA founding father Michael Harrington in 1976, cult leader Jack Barnes’s with Stanley Aronowitz in 1965, and George Breitman’s with Carl Haessler in 1959. While the DSA did not exist in 1965 or 1959, social democracy did.

Aronowitz was a leader along with James Weinstein, the late publisher of “In These Times”, of the Committee for Independent Political Action that was a forerunner of the DSA strategy. A NLR article on the Rainbow Coalition will indicate that this strategy has been around for a long time:

In 1965, a group of white socialists in New York City created the Committee for Independent Political Action, which attempted to advance an anti-Vietnam war agenda within the Democratic Party primary elections. Radical trade unionist Stanley Aronowitz viewed the strategy as a means for ‘an independent political movement’ to attack the Democratic Party, as well as to ‘evolve into a third party.’ Revolutionaries who entered the Democratic Party could ‘put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot’, while educating a mass audience.

As for Haessler, he was 72 at the time he debated George Breitman and had probably shifted to the right, keeping pace with other SP members who were thoroughgoing anti-Communists in 1959. To his credit, he went to prison for opposing WWI and was closer to Eugene V. Debs than he was to Victor Berger, the sewer socialist he dubbed an “old fogey”.

While Bhaskar Sunkara has largely been identified with Michael Harrington and Karl Kautsky, I would see him much more as in the tradition of Stanley Aronowitz who was one of CUNY’s best-known Marxist professors. He helped to get the Socialist Scholars Conference going in the 1960s and restarted it in 1981 as a DSA-backed enterprise.

Like Sunkara, Aronowitz was a very nimble defender of social democratic politics and had momentum on his side in the 1970s when a number of Democratic Party elected officials joined the DSA, especially African-Americans. The disgusting McCarthyite KeyWiki website provides a list of DSA elected officials from 1990 that includes 19 men and women including Congressmen Ron Dellums and Major Owens, NYC Mayor David Dinkins, and Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President. It was not uncommon for leftists to take jobs with these elected officials. For example, Lars Lih worked for Ron Dellums as Ron Ashford did for Major Owens. Ashford was a member of CISPES in New York, where I got to know him, as well as a member of the Communist Workers Party that made the tragic mistake of getting into an armed confrontation with the KKK in North Carolina.

More recently, there have been two debates between leading DSAers and people coming from a Trotskyist tradition. Back in April, there was a conference in NYC co-sponsored by Jacobin and HM that included a debate between Charles Post and Eric Blanc. Unfortunately, there was no video recording but you can read my capsule summary here.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been watching a debate between Bhaskar Sunkara and James Peterson, the editor of Socialist Revolution that can be seen above. Peterson, like Post, repeats the standard arguments for independent class action that they learned in the Trotskyist movement. Post was a former member of the SWP and Peterson belongs to the American section of the IMT, a British Trotskyist International led by Alan Woods that never gained nearly as high a profile as its rival Socialist Alternative. Probably, the decision of Peterson’s group to call itself the International Marxist Tendency has quite a bit to do with its modest presence.

Actually, I was far more interested in what Sunkara had to say since he has never really replied to his critics on the left, least of all a skunk like me. When he was 16 years old (or something like that), he was on the Marxism list but never promoted social democratic politics except in his farewell address to the subscribers:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Unlike Eric Blanc, Sunkara is not much of a theorist. I’ll be getting around to his “Socialist Manifesto” but as far as I know, most of his statements are rather anodyne op-ed type pieces in the bourgeois press, including a regular column in the Guardian where he offers up this kind of wisdom:

I’ve been wrong about this once before, but I’d bet that whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020, they’ll be able to defeat Trump. That’s all the more reason to go with the most viable progressive candidate – someone committed to change and with the knowledge and willingness to do battle with the big business interests that want to hear none of it.

At the very least, this acknowledges that Sanders is a “progressive candidate” rather than the boilerplate description of him as a socialist, a label that is getting harder and harder to justify given how he has clothed himself in New Deal garments.

Early on in the debate, Peterson defends the distinction between socialism and communism that in reality never appeared in Marx’s writings, as Michael Lebowitz points out. For Peterson (and many other Marxists, including Lenin—I would add), socialism is identified with the dictatorship of the proletariat—a state in which the workers rule. After socialism has become a world system and completed the task of wiping out all traces of capitalist property relations, money will no longer be needed and the state will begin to dissolve until communism is achieved, a purely classless society that will have a lot in common with utopian literature of the past. Frankly, I’ll be glad if we even get to those conditions that Trotskyists used to call a workers state with bureaucratic deformations given the descent into hell of the past decade or so.

Sunkara views this distinction between socialism and communism as baseless. There will always be a need for a state, in his view. He puts it this way. “Let’s say that you want to build a bridge and I want to build a tunnel. How do we mediate that without a state?” To start off, I remain mystified by any attempts by the left to grapple with the problem of future socialist societies whether it is the boneheaded Fully Automatic Luxury Communism or the thoughtful attempt by Sam Gindin to say “What socialism will look like”.

I try to imagine why a state would be necessary to decide for example whether a tunnel or a bridge should be built. The implication of Sunkara’s example is that markets would solve these problems rather than planning. Keep in mind that this is what Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst magazine, has already said:

What is more challenging is the issue of economic planning. We have to start with the observation that the expectation of a centrally planned economy simply replacing the market has no empirical foundation. We can want planning to work, but we have no evidence that it can. Every attempt to put it in place for more than short durations has met with failure.

In a society of millions of people, billions if you conceive of communism as a world system, planning will be essential if for no other reason to utilize resources intelligently. Scientific planning, in fact, is the only way to avoid the Sixth Extinction whatever the Jacobin/Catalyst hustlers believe. If scientists getting together to figure out how to preserve old-growth forests while still supplying the wood needed for chairs and desks is the same thing as cops arresting environmentalists sitting in to protect redwood trees, then the differences between social democrats and Marxists is deeper than anybody could have ever imagined.

Moving right along, Sunkara and Peterson wrangled over the question of “bourgeois democracy”. At 18:00 in the video, Sunkara expresses disagreement with the idea that democracy was a gain of bourgeois revolutions, as put forward by Peterson who was simply expressing the idea scattered throughout Kautsky’s writings. He wonders why the bourgeoisie should get credit for the very thing they violently opposed. He says that from 1848, the bourgeoisie opposed “democratization”. Of course, there is a problem in the way he formulated this. Marxists don’t use a term like “democratization” that is class neutral. That is why they refer to bourgeois democracy. For example, the American civil war produced bourgeois democracy. It ended chattel slavery and allowed Blacks to become free wage laborers. Even if Jim Crow forced them into second-class citizenship, they still had the right to move wherever they wanted, including New York and Chicago where they could get jobs making Ford automobiles and vote for the Democratic Party that was largely responsible for Jim Crow. This is a contradiction that largely escaped Sunkara, whose grasp of dialectics is about as deep as mine is of particle physics.

The final 30 minutes or so of their debate revolves around the Democratic Party that Sunkara referred to as a cesspool above. In accord with Eric Blanc’s article on “the dirty break”, he explains that it is okay to “use” the primary ballot to raise all sorts of hell as a socialist candidate more likely to get air time than we used to when we ran people like Peter Camejo for President. If this was all there was to the tactic, I’d take the Jacobin publishing empire-builder a bit more seriously. However, these campaigns by Sanders, A. O-C, et al are not about socialist propaganda. They are serious attempts to get elected and seen so by Jacobin and the DSA, so much so that A. O-C told CNN that she “look[s] forward to… us rallying behind all Democratic nominees, including the governor, to make sure that he wins in November.” That was Andrew Cuomo, the politician who represents everything that is filthy about the Democratic Party. It is no different than Sanders urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. My guess is that whoever runs against Trump next year, Sanders will certainly endorse whoever the Democrats nominate, even Joe Biden. That will be a contradiction for Bhaskar Sunkara to unravel—speaking dialectically.


July 20, 2018

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics

Filed under: Great Britain,Labour Party,social democracy — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm


The left internationally has been stuck on the horns of a dilemma for quite some time now. When radicals take state power but fail to abolish private property, internal contradictions eventually catch up with the government and dash the hopes initially placed in it—Syriza in Greece and Chavista Venezuela being prime examples. With Cuba and North Korea as relics of the “communist” past, there are few on the left that consider them as models in the way that large parts once did fifty years ago, even more so when both hold-outs are now moving rapidly toward a Chinese-style economy. Just this week, there was news that Cuba will now recognize private property under a new constitution.

Despite such discouraging tendencies, radicalism persists mostly as a result of the assaults on living standards the capitalist system imposes. As part of an ongoing project to analyze the renaissance of social democracy in the United States, rebranded by the DSA, Jacobin and the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party as “democratic socialism”, I decided to read Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics”. I knew little about Corbyn except what I learned from the Guardian, The Nation and the usual leftwing websites that were as breathlessly enthusiastic as they were about the Sanders campaign.

As someone who has lauded Seymour’s books in the past, I delayed reading his 2016 Verso book because his Lacanian turn, while satisfying his own intellectual agenda, left a Freud-hater like me cold. I am happy to report that his book on Corbyn vintage is Richard Seymour and necessary reading for those grappling with the question of whether capitalism can be reformed.

Continue reading

June 27, 2018

Defending Karl Marx in Foreign Affairs…What’s that about?

Filed under: economics,social democracy — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

On June 14th, Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations that was formed in 1918 to develop strategies for the ruling class, published an article titled “Marxist World: What Did You Expect From Capitalism?”. (The article, which is behind a paywall, can be read below) The author was Robin Varghese, the Associate Director of Engagement at the Economic Advancement Program of the Open Society Foundations and an Editor at 3 Quarks Daily. In addition to those affiliations identified by Foreign Affairs, Varghese is also the Chairman of the Board of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a kind of updated version of the Learning Annex modeled after the Frankfurt School. The roost for Max Horkheimer et al was actually called the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University. The knock-off is a place where hipsters can attend classes of the sort you might take in Duke University’s literature department but at a much lower cost.

So why would Foreign Affairs, the journal where George Kennan’s blueprint for the Cold War domination titled “Containment” appeared, be publishing something favorable to Karl Marx? Let me take a stab at answering that question.

To start with, it is necessary to say a few words about George Soros’s Economic Advancement Program. The Open Society website states its goal: “Because economic systems are complex, we deploy a mix of interventions. We make private sector investments through the program’s investment vehicle, the Soros Economic Development Fund, to yield social impact, we support civil society actors advancing economic justice, we advise governments on economic policy, and we build coalitions to foment progressive change.” Basically, this is a vehicle for microfinance of the sort pioneered by the Grameen Bank. In 2009, Soros teamed up with Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who funds Intercept, and Google to serve small businesses in India. Omidyar’s website described its aim:

“With this investment, we will meet the huge demand to serve smaller businesses in India that have little access to finance,” said Neal DeLaurentis, Vice President of Soros Economic Development Fund. “Long ignored by commercial capital markets, small and medium businesses are an attractive investment opportunity as well as an engine for economic growth for India.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the failings of microfinance but I would advise reading this for a useful critique.

Turning now to Varghese’s article, it can easily be understood as just another in the series of articles that appeared immediately after the 2008 meltdown, crediting Karl Marx for diagnosing the contradictions of the capitalist economy but stopping short at his prescription for moving beyond it through socialist revolution. He writes:

Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.

As I pointed out in a 2016 article, this sort of testimony to Marx’s wisdom went viral a decade ago:

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

Using a combination of common sense and what he has absorbed from reading Marx, Varghese describes the current epoch as one consisting of chronic stagnation even if it is producing billionaires by the wheelbarrow full:

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

There’s not much to quibble with in the middle section of his article that describes the growing inequality in the USA and other advanced capitalist countries. It cites Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic who have produced outstanding work even if their analysis is not necessarily grounded in Marxist theory.

In a section titled “The Keynesian Challenge”, he sounds skeptical at first blush about the possibility of a new New Deal, a “Swedish model” or any of the other solutions proposed by the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party:

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.

But the last three paragraphs are a dead giveaway that Varghese is for Marx’s economic analysis but not his life-long goal to “change it”. The only thing he seems bent on changing is the sort of neoliberal austerity that Sanderistas find so loathsome. However, forming revolutionary parties and overthrowing capitalism is even more loathsome apparently as indicated from the reformist pap below:

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

Let’s take apart this pile of crap that probably is first cousin to the Vivek Chibber Catalyst article that Robert Brenner objected to. It is the sort of thing you routinely hear from Jacobin, the DSA old guard, Dissent Magazine and The Nation.

To start with, let’s examine: “This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings.”

The most dynamic social arrangement? Is this guy serious? Capitalism is not primarily about markets. It is about coercion. Slavery, debt peonage, child labor, union busting and other forms of extra-market forces were midwives to capitalism and continue to this day. Books like Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name” offer ample evidence of how racialized capitalism retains many of the coercive features that were present in its infancy. All you need to do is go to your local grocery store and make a list of all the different imported agricultural products, especially from Mexico. A 2014 LA Times article describes anything but a “dynamic social arrangement”:

Ricardo Martinez and Eugenia Santiago were desperate.

At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists.

Escape was tempting but risky. The compound was fenced with barbed wire and patrolled by bosses on all-terrain vehicles. If the couple got beyond the gates, local police could arrest them and bring them back. Then they would be stripped of their shoes.

Martinez, 28, and Santiago, 23, decided to chance it. Bioparques was one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, a supplier for Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains. But conditions at the company’s Bioparques 4 camp had become unbearable.

They left their backpacks behind to avoid suspicion and walked out the main gate. As they approached the highway, a car screeched up. Four camp bosses jumped out. One waved a stick at them.

“You’re trying to leave,” he said, after spotting a change of clothing in a plastic bag Martinez was carrying.

“I’m just going for a walk,” Martinez said.

“Get in the car or I’ll break you,” the boss replied.

The next day, Martinez and Santiago were back at work in the tomato fields.

Varghese endorses James Meade’s solution to saving “egalitarian, social democratic capitalism”, namely to redistribute capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. This “broad property-owning democracy” would supposedly insure that both you and the Koch brothers would have about the same amount of “capital assets”, including land, machinery, securities, etc. Fat chance of that, I’d say. I don’t have much time or motivation to plumb the profundities of Meade’s economic ideas but suffice it to say that Wikipedia describes them as based on neo-Classical assumptions such as: (1) The economy in question is a closed economy with no relationship with the outside world. (2) There is no government activity involving taxation and expenditure. (3) Perfect competition exists in the market.

Am I that surprised that someone who is paid by George Soros recommends the economic ideas of James Meade? Commentary Magazine, the leading voice of neo-Conservatism, wrote a rave review of Meade’s 1975 “The Intelligent Radical’s Guide to Economic Policy: The Mixed Economy”:

James Meade, a former president of the Royal Economic Society, has published (in England) one of those rare economics books that one can recommend to every thoughtful person who takes an interest in the fundamental problems of contemporary societies. Some enterprising publisher should bring it out also in the United States. So far as my acquaintance extends, nothing of this character, scope, and quality has been published on our side of the Atlantic.

Starting to get the picture? Varghese’s article found exactly the right outlet in Foreign Affairs.

The final paragraph makes it clear that his project is to breathe life into social democracy. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn must succeed in taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century. However, it will not be with the politics of the past. Of course, you know what the “politics of the past” is about—socialist revolution and all that other utopian nonsense.

Let me conclude with a few words about the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. A 2012 New Yorker Magazine article looked in on a class given by its founder Ajay Singh Chaudhary, who has a Columbia University PhD, and Abby Kluchin, another Columbia PhD. For people in their shoes, the teaching jobs at the Institute are about the same as what adjuncts earn. Courses are held at night and cost a few hundred dollars. Faculty members receive eighty per cent of tuition, which amounts to more than they would make at a major university—at least if they are adjuncts.

Most of the classes are geared to the kinds of people who would find MLA conferences worth attending, such as “Jane Austen and the Problem of Other Minds” but they do have one on “Crisis and Capitalism” that sounds like the sort of thing you might have taken at the Brecht Forum but for a lot less than the $315 the Brooklyn Institute charges. The class was given by Raphaële Chappe, who used to be a Goldman Sachs Vice President in the Tax Department. So I guess she knows something about capitalism.

A while back she was interviewed by Laura Flanders in a show titled “Eat the Rich?”. Laura asked her about whether finance capital could be used to redistribute power and resources. If this sounds a bit like the microfinance and James Meade type strategies indicated above, you are on the right track. It turns out that Chappe had started what she called a Robin Hood Hedge Fund that incorporated this redistribution agenda. She explained what made it tick:

We have an algorithm, we call it the parasite. What it does is, it replicates the investments of what we consider to be insiders in Wall Street. We form a portfolio that replicates those investments, and so far we’ve gotten great returns. I think last year was 40% return, which made it the second hedge fund in the world. Of course, it’s a little bit of impertinence. We’re trying to hack it, derail it…I think that it’s just a very small dent if you think about all the types of strategies out there that hedge funds are using to make investments. We’re basically mimicking a very small segment. There are things that we cannot track, or trace. High frequency trading, for example. You have hundreds of trades happening every minute, we wouldn’t be able to do that. We do our best to hack it with the tools we have.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from taking her course. After all, night school is a good way to develop social relationships in a very lonely city but if I had $315 to invest and if I was single, I’d sign up for a salsa dancing class instead.

Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018 Issue
Marxist World
What Did You Expect From Capitalism?
By Robin Varghese

After nearly every economic downturn, voices appear suggesting that Marx was right to predict that the system would eventually destroy itself. Today, however, the problem is not a sudden crisis of capitalism but its normal workings, which in recent decades have revived pathologies that the developed world seemed to have left behind.

Since 1967, median household income in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has stagnated for the bottom 60 percent of the population, even as wealth and income for the richest Americans have soared. Changes in Europe, although less stark, point in the same direction. Corporate profits are at their highest levels since the 1960s, yet corporations are increasingly choosing to save those profits rather than invest them, further hurting productivity and wages. And recently, these changes have been accompanied by a hollowing out of democracy and its replacement with technocratic rule by globalized elites.

Mainstream theorists tend to see these developments as a puzzling departure from the promises of capitalism, but they would not have surprised Marx. He predicted that capitalism’s internal logic would over time lead to rising inequality, chronic unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, the dominance of large, powerful firms, and the creation of an entrenched elite whose power would act as a barrier to social progress. Eventually, the combined weight of these problems would spark a general crisis, ending in revolution.

Marx believed the revolution would come in the most advanced capitalist economies. Instead, it came in less developed ones, such as Russia and China, where communism ushered in authoritarian government and economic stagnation. During the middle of the twentieth century, meanwhile, the rich countries of Western Europe and the United States learned to manage, for a time, the instability and inequality that had characterized capitalism in Marx’s day. Together, these trends discredited Marx’s ideas in the eyes of many.

Yet despite the disasters of the Soviet Union and the countries that followed its model, Marx’s theory remains one of the most perceptive critiques of capitalism ever offered. Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.


The corpus of Marx’s work and the breadth of his concerns are vast, and many of his ideas on topics such as human development, ideology, and the state have been of perennial interest since he wrote them down. What makes Marx acutely relevant today is his economic theory, which he intended, as he wrote in Capital, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” And although Marx, like the economist David Ricardo, relied on the flawed labor theory of value for some of his economic thinking, his remarkable insights remain.

Marx believed that under capitalism, the pressure on entrepreneurs to accumulate capital under conditions of market competition would lead to outcomes that are palpably familiar today. First, he argued that improvements in labor productivity created by technological innovation would largely be captured by the owners of capital. “Even when the real wages are rising,” he wrote, they “never rise proportionally to the productive power of labor.” Put simply, workers would always receive less than what they added to output, leading to inequality and relative immiseration.

Second, Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. Third, Marx thought that competition would lead to greater concentration in and among industries, as larger, more profitable firms drove smaller ones out of business. Since these larger firms would, by definition, be more competitive and technologically advanced, they would enjoy ever-increasing surpluses. Yet these surpluses would also be unequally distributed, compounding the first two dynamics.

Marx made plenty of mistakes, especially when it came to politics. Because he believed that the state was a tool of the capitalist class, he underestimated the power of collective efforts to reform capitalism. In the advanced economies of the West, from 1945 to around 1975, voters showed how politics could tame markets, putting officials in power who pursued a range of social democratic policies without damaging the economy. This period, which the French call “les Trente Glorieuses” (the Glorious Thirty), saw a historically unique combination of high growth, increasing productivity, rising real wages, technological innovation, and expanding systems of social insurance in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. For a while, it seemed that Marx was wrong about the ability of capitalist economies to satisfy human needs, at least material ones.


The postwar boom, it appears, was not built to last. It ultimately came to an end with the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s, when the preferred economic policy of Western social democracies—Keynesian state management of demand—seemed incapable of restoring full employment and profitability without provoking high levels of inflation. In response, leaders across the West, starting with French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, enacted policies to restore profitability by curbing inflation, weakening organized labor, and accommodating unemployment.

That crisis, and the recessions that followed, was the beginning of the end for the mixed economies of the West. Believing that government interference had begun to impede economic efficiency, elites in country after country sought to unleash the forces of the market by deregulating industries and paring back the welfare state. Combined with conservative monetary policies, independent central banks, and the effects of the information revolution, these measures were able to deliver low volatility and, beginning in the 1990s, higher profits. In the United States, corporate profits after tax (adjusted for inventory valuation and capital consumption) went from an average of 4.5 percent in the 25 years before President Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, to 5.6 percent from 1993 to 2017.

This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies.

Yet in advanced democracies, the long recovery since the 1970s has proved incapable of replicating the broad-based prosperity of the mid-twentieth century. It has been marked instead by unevenness, sluggishness, and inequality. This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies. Indeed, a major response to the profitability crisis of the 1970s was to nullify the postwar bargain between business and organized labor, whereby management agreed to raise wages in line with productivity increases. Between 1948 and 1973, wages rose in tandem with productivity across the developed world. Since then, they have become decoupled in much of the West. This decoupling has been particularly acute in the United States, where, in the four decades since 1973, productivity increased by nearly 75 percent, while real wages rose by less than ten percent. For the bottom 60 percent of households, wages have barely moved at all.

If the postwar boom made Marx seem obsolete, recent decades have confirmed his prescience. Marx argued that the long-run tendency of capitalism was to form a system in which real wages did not keep up with increases in productivity. This insight mirrors the economist Thomas Piketty’s observation that the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of economic growth, ensuring that the gap between those whose incomes derive from capital assets and those whose incomes derive from labor will grow over time.

Marx’s basis for the condemnation of capitalism was not that it made workers materially worse off per se. Rather, his critique was that capitalism put arbitrary limits on the productive capacity it unleashed. Capitalism was, no doubt, an upgrade over what came before. But the new software came with a bug. Although capitalism had led to previously unimaginable levels of wealth and technological progress, it was incapable of using them to meet the needs of all. This, Marx contended, was due not to material limitations but to social and political ones: namely, the fact that production is organized in the interests of the capitalist class rather than those of society as a whole. Even if individual capitalists and workers are rational, the system as a whole is irrational.

To be sure, the question of whether any democratically planned alternative to capitalism can do better remains open. Undemocratic alternatives, such as the state socialism practiced by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, clearly did not. One need not buy Marx’s thesis that communism is inevitable to accept the utility of his analysis.

Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. NOAH BERGER / REUTERS A Kiva robot moves inventory at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, California December 1, 2014.


Marx did not just predict that capitalism would lead to rising inequality and relative immiseration. Perhaps more important, he identified the structural mechanisms that would produce them. For Marx, competition between businesses would force them to pay workers less and less in relative terms as productivity rose in order to cut the costs of labor. As Western countries have embraced the market in recent decades, this tendency has begun to reassert itself.

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

Competition also drives down labor’s share of compensation by creating segments of the labor force with an increasingly weak relationship to the productive parts of the economy—segments that Marx called “the reserve army of labor,” referring to the unemployed and underemployed. Marx thought of this reserve army as a byproduct of innovations that displaced labor. When production expanded, demand for labor would increase, drawing elements of the reserve army into new factories. This would cause wages to rise, incentivizing firms to substitute capital for labor by investing in new technologies, thus displacing workers, driving down wages, and swelling the ranks of the reserve army. As a result, wages would tend toward a “subsistence” standard of living, meaning that wage growth over the long run would be low to nonexistent. As Marx put it, competition drives businesses to cut labor costs, given the market’s “peculiarity that the battles in it are won less by recruiting than by discharging the army of workers.”

The United States has been living this reality for nearly 20 years. For five decades, the labor-force participation rate for men has been stagnant or falling, and since 2000, it has been declining for women, as well. And for more unskilled groups, such as those with less than a high school diploma, the rate of participation stands at below 50 percent and has for quite some time. Again, as Marx anticipated, technology amplifies these effects, and today, economists are once again discussing the prospect of the large-scale displacement of labor through automation. On the low end, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 14 percent of jobs in member countries, approximately 60 million in total, are “highly automatable.” On the high end, the consulting company McKinsey estimates that 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated. These losses are expected to be concentrated among unskilled segments of the labor force.

Whether these workers can or will be reabsorbed remains an open question, and fear of automation’s potential to dislocate workers should avoid the so-called lump of labor fallacy, which assumes that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done and that once it is automated, there will be none left for humans. But the steady decline in the labor-force participation rate of working-age men over the last 50 years suggests that many dislocated workers will not be reabsorbed into the labor force if their fate is left to the market.

The same process that dislocates workers—technological change driven by competition—also produces market concentration, with larger and larger firms coming to dominate production. Marx predicted a world not of monopolies but of oligopolistic competition, in which incumbents enjoy monopolistic profits, smaller firms struggle to scrape by, and new entrants try to innovate in order to gain market share. This, too, resembles the present. Today, so-called superstar firms, which include companies such as Amazon, Apple, and FedEx, have come to dominate entire sectors, leaving new entrants attempting to break in through innovation. Large firms outcompete their opponents through innovation and network effects, but also by either buying them up or discharging their own reserve armies—that is, laying off workers.

Research by the economist David Autor and his colleagues suggests that the rise of superstar firms may indeed help explain labor’s declining share of national income across advanced economies. Because superstar firms are far more productive and efficient than their competitors, labor is a significantly lower share of their costs. Since 1982, concentration has been increasing in the six economic sectors that account for 80 percent of employment in the United States: finance, manufacturing, retail trade, services, wholesale trade, and utilities and transportation. And the more this concentration has increased, the more labor’s share of income has declined. In U.S. manufacturing, for example, labor compensation has declined from almost one-half of the value added in 1982 to about one-third in 2012. As these superstar firms have become more important to Western economies, workers have suffered across the board.


In 1957, at the height of Western Europe’s postwar boom, the economist Ludwig Erhard (who later became chancellor of West Germany) declared that “prosperity for all and prosperity through competition are inseparably connected; the first postulate identifies the goal, the second the path that leads to it.” Marx, however, seems to have been closer to the mark with his prediction that instead of prosperity for all, competition would create winners and losers, with the winners being those who could innovate and become efficient.

Innovation can lead to the development of new economic sectors, as well as new lines of goods and services in older ones. These can in principle absorb labor, reducing the ranks of the reserve army and increasing wages. Indeed, capitalism’s ability to expand and meet people’s wants and needs amazed Marx, even as he condemned the system’s wastefulness and the deformities it engendered in individuals.

For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines.

Defenders of the current order, especially in the United States, often argue that a focus on static inequality (the distribution of resources at a given time) obscures the dynamic equality of social mobility. Marx, by contrast, assumed that classes reproduce themselves, that wealth is transferred effectively between generations, and that the children of capitalists will exploit the children of workers when their time comes. For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines. Recent research by the economists Branko Milanovic and Roy van der Weide, for instance, has found that inequality hurts the income growth of the poor but not the rich. Piketty, meanwhile, has speculated that if current trends continue, capitalism could develop into a new “patrimonial” model of accumulation, in which family wealth trumps any amount of merit.


Marx’s overall worldview left little room for politics to mitigate the downsides of capitalism. As he and his collaborator Friedrich Engels famously stated in The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Until recently, governments in the West seemed to be defying this claim. The greatest challenge to Marx’s view came from the creation and expansion of welfare states in the West during the mid-twentieth century, often (but not only) by social democratic parties representing the working class. The intellectual architect of these developments was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that economic activity was driven not by the investment decisions of capitalists but by the consumption decisions of ordinary people. If governments could use policy levers to increase overall demand, then the capitalist class would invest in production. Under the banner of Keynesianism, parties of both the center-left and the center-right achieved something that Marx thought was impossible: efficiency, equality, and full employment, all at the same time. Politics and policy had a degree of independence from economic structures, which in turn gave them an ability to reform those structures.

Marx believed in the independence of politics but thought that it lay only in the ability to choose between capitalism and another system altogether. He largely believed that it was folly to try to tame capitalist markets permanently through democratic politics. (In this, he ironically stands in agreement with the pro-capitalist economist Milton Friedman.)

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.


Today, the question of whether politics can tame markets remains open. One reading of the changes in advanced economies since the 1970s is that they are the result capitalism’s natural tendency to overwhelm politics, democratic or otherwise. In this narrative, les Trente Glorieuses were a fluke. Under normal conditions, efficiency, full employment, and an egalitarian distribution of income cannot simultaneously obtain. Any arrangement in which they do is fleeting and, over the long run, a threat to market efficiency.

Yet this is not the only narrative. An alternative one would start with the recognition that the politics of capitalism’s golden age, which combined strong unions, Keynesian demand management, loose monetary policy, and capital controls, could not deliver an egalitarian form of capitalism forever. But it would not conclude that no other form of politics can ever do so.

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

September 15, 2017

Reflections on the DSA

Filed under: social democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Fifty years ago I fully expected that by 2017 we would be living under socialism in the USA, thanks to a combination of deepening contradictions that would make capitalism untenable and our steely resolve in building a vanguard Trotskyist party up to the task of leading the glorious revolution of the future. It turned out that it was our vanguardist pretensions that were untenable. That plus capitalism’s ability to both co-opt and repress the left leaves us where we are today: in a total mess.

In the early 80s I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star Network in the hope of building a new left that dispensed with vanguardist pretensions. Carrying out a one-man probe of the extant non-Leninist left, I decided to attend DSA’s “Radical Alternatives for the 1980s: A Conference on Education and Strategy for Progressive” in 1983. After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement with its cocksure belief that it was predestined to lead the American revolution, I found the conference a breath of fresh air, especially Stanley Aronowitz’s presentation on what Peter and I used to call “tasks and perspectives” reports. The DSA was only a year old at the time, having been formed through a merger of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). NAM was probably closer to the North Star politically but not likely to be interested in a regroupment effort with ex-Trotskyists. Michael Harrington’s DSOC was not only much larger but had an orientation to the Democratic Party that was a match to the ideological background of leading NAM members like Richard Healy, the son of former CP leader Dorothy Healy.

Continue reading

July 24, 2017

Chapo Frat House

Filed under: comedy,sexism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Chapo Trap House boys from left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Will Menaker

I am gay and I voted for Obama
I am a shill for the Clinton campaign and the leftwing mainstream press
I’m a pussy who gets fucked right up the ass

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
I am a fag who was blessed to live amongst us
And Arabs to have equal rights.
I have no love of country and the white folks are not all bad
And the Albright folks are tacky
It makes me sad

I am a cuck
I am a libtard

Don’t talk of Trump ‘cause nothing scares me more
I really should call him daddy
He could be the savior and will go down in history
And save us all from douchebags like me

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
A cuck has no fun
A libtard always cries

Choosing a Chapo Trap House podcast to listen to for the first time, I picked a show that featured an interview with Shane Bauer. Bauer is a journalist who has written for Mother Jones and who I follow on Twitter, partly because he has a very good understanding of what’s happening in Syria. Perhaps that’s a function of spending two years in an Iranian prison accused of being a CIA agent. He and two others were hiking in Iraq (don’t ask me why) and inadvertently strayed in to Iranian territory.

Bauer was being interviewed on his going undercover to gather material on rightwing militias for a Mother Jones article and for the first half-hour, I found nothing objectionable even if it was hardly the sort of radio (or podcast) that I would make a habit of.

At the thirty-minute break, the song above came on. Sung ostensibly by the Chapo Trap House principals, I wondered what was the point. Was this something in the spirit of Sasha Baron Cohen singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” at a Texas roadhouse in “Borat”? The point of Borat’s exercise was to demonstrate that Texas was filled with anti-Semites but what was their point? Maybe they didn’t have any except to show that they were “bad boys”.

Ironically, in another podcast I sampled earlier, they were riffing on Bill Maher’s use of the “nigger” word to show how disgusting he and HBO were. So exactly what’s the difference? I don’t see any unless it is okay to call people “fags” as a joke but not to use the word “nigger”. What about “kike”? That might get a few laughs.

I first heard about this show from a puff piece that appeared in The New Yorker magazine on November 18, 2016 that quoted Matt Christman, one of the three men who started Chapo, on what the goal of the “dirtbag left” is: “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.” Oh, I see. How about throwing in some “kikes” and “niggers” somewhere along the line to push the envelope even further.

For me, the mystery was how Chapo ever got such a glowing testimonial in a magazine that hates the left. The New Yorker, for example, published an article by Jill Lepore trashing Howard Zinn, as well as one promoting GMO. The editor is David Remnick, a Sovietologist who Alexander Cockburn once referred to as “a third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes, as witness his awful reporting from Russia in the 1990s.”

Like Jacobin, Chapo has the knack of getting accolades from the most powerful newspapers and magazines in the USA. The next big publicity shot in the arm came in the form of a July 5, 2017 New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to Be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The author was Nikil Saval, a founder of n+1 magazine that is often mentioned in the same breath as Jacobin—namely, a Young Lion pretender to the throne of Marxism. I generally enjoy reading n+1 but found Saval’s prolix account of working on the Bernie Sanders campaign pretty objectionable from a Marxist standpoint. As might be obvious, the Chapo/Jacobin/n+1 milieu takes Sanders’s “socialism” at face value.

The brunt of Saval’s piece is to call attention to liberal-bashing of the sort that Chapo Trapo House specializes in. Saval mentions that they spend a lot of airtime “making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical Hamilton.” Well, with the price of tickets for the Broadway smash hit, most of their listeners would not be able to pay for a ticket so the jokes might have sailed over their heads. However, with the $70,000 per month the boys are making from their podcasts, I assume that they might want to go see it for themselves. I just hope they don’t yell any racial epithets at the performers even if they are tempted to call Javier Muñoz, the HIV-positive star, a fag.

Just this week a feud broke out between the boys and The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer who faulted them for trafficking in “dominance politics”, which means using mean-spirited humor against the Clinton wing of the party that The New Republic identifies with. Heer advocates reconciling the Sanders wing of the party that Chapo belongs to with the centrist old guard, something obviously not on Chapo’s agenda.

In a Twitter war between Heer and the boys, Chapo host Felix Biederman tweeted that he is “not reading Jeet’s article about how rude we are until he takes David Frum’s dick out of his mouth”. Both Heer and Frum are heterosexuals, while Frum is a longtime neoconservative who voted for Hillary Clinton. It is really difficult for me to understand how in 2017 this kind of gay-baiting can take place. I was around to see the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and welcomed the rise of a Gay Liberation movement. In the radical movement of that period, you could have gotten expelled for using that kind of language unless, of course, you were in Avakian’s sect. Now it seems that it is not only permissible in the DSA/Jacobin milieu but perhaps helps to generate $70,000 per month. Other times, other manners, I suppose.

While not exactly an A-List bourgeois newspaper, the Guardian certainly has the readership that might pay for a Chapo subscription. Yesterday, they published an article titled “Leftwing Breitbart? Chapo Trap House is strong new voice in resistance to Trump” by Edward Helmore that took Chapo’s side in the conflict with Heer and The New Republic.

Helmore’s article has the benefit of placing Chapo into an ideological context:

The hosts, who are aligned with the Brooklyn arm of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), met on social media, gaining followers with their offbeat humor and views on what is termed “left Twitter”.

That led to a series of podcasts on the popular Street Fight Radio before the launch of Chapo Trap House, named for Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the hip-hop term for a drug house.

One DSA member familiar with the thinking of the podcast producers offered the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism as an ideological reference, and said the spat with the New Republic illustrated the resistance of neoliberals to warnings that a hard left turn is necessary to counter the rise of the so-called alt-right and avoid continued electoral defeat.

Yes, indeed. How did I miss the parallels between Chapo Trap House and Theodore Adorno, especially given the chapter on fags in “Dialectics of Enlightenment”. I should have realized that DSA members would have been attuned to the Frankfurt School, given Stanley Aronowitz’s role in the organization’s ideological journey. Maybe at the next Left Forum, the boys can do a performance of “I am a cuck”. I’ll bet it will go over great with the bitches and the fags. Oh, did I mention that in the closing moments of the Shane Bauer podcast there was an elevated discussion of the Trump-Putin connection with the new president being referred to as Putin’s “bitch”?

Helmore is also very astute in sizing up Chapo’s role in electoral politics, referring to John Mason, a political science professor in New Jersey:

“Who is the most popular politician in the United States right now?” asked Mason. “Bernie Sanders! The ground has shifted and this is really the centre of the Democratic party. The people who have been marginalised, especially after this defeat, are those who belong to the Clinton-Obama wing.”

The far left, Mason said, is articulating itself in new ways. He pointed to a recent meeting of Sanders and Al Gore and the emergence of anti alt-right groups such as Redneck Revolt. Last week, the DSA published an electoral strategy guide; it anticipates strong or record attendance at its convention in Chicago next month.

So, let me get this straight. The “socialist” wing of the Democratic Party is now its center and proof of that is Bernie Sanders meeting with Al Gore? And what about that electoral strategy guide? Written by Joseph M. Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple University and national vice-chair of DSA, it proposes the same “inside/outside” electoral strategy that not only defines social democracy in the USA but that of the Communist Party as well:

DSA should not be in the business of solely working to secure Democratic majorities for the purpose of pressuring them from the left. But many of our allies in the black, Latino, trade union, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, and feminist communities will be mobilized in 2018 to flip Republican state legislatures, to expand Democratic majorities in Democratic states, and to take back, at least, the House at the national level. We can’t simply ignore what those constituencies who would constitute a multi-racial and class-based left will be doing.

Thus, in my view, DSA should deploy its limited resources primarily to build social movements and, where possible, shore up a progressive electoral pole (a more multi-racial and labor-based version of the post-Sanders trend) that opposes the corporate, neo-liberal dominance of the Democratic Party.

I believe that the best way of doing that is to run viable democratic socialist candidates either in Democratic primaries (see Ross Mittiga) or in local non-partisan races (see khalid kamau). But if the social movement groups we work with back a strong anti-corporate Democratic Party candidate of color or labor or another staunchly progressive activist, some locals will clearly consider working on those campaigns, too — particularly if they involve a primary challenge to a pro-corporate neo-liberal Democrat.

That’s what we are left with beneath all the “bad boy” shock jock humor at the expense of gay people. A business as usual orientation to liberal politicians like Bernie Sanders and Al Gore in the hope that the Democratic Party can serve as what? The vanguard of a socialist revolution? A return to the New Deal? Talk about utopian schemas.

I find myself in advanced years wondering what will take such people to break with the Democratic Party once and for all. If it wasn’t support for slavery, the invasion of the USSR in 1918, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean war and the Vietnam war, what will it take? At a certain point, you begin to wonder if maybe such people are not that opposed to the capitalist system, especially when you are making $70,000 per month sitting around making banal observations about American politics that relies on four-letter words to spice things up.


I have just learned on Facebook that “I am a cuck” was “a song by the comedian Tim Heidecker who wrote it to mock the alt-right kids who went after him for, among other things, siding against keeping an alt-right influenced show on Cartoon Network’s adult swim.” As I said, the song was likely meant in jest but so was Bill Maher’s wisecrack about being a “field nigger”.

June 27, 2017

Commentary on Bhaskar Sunkara’s New York Times op-ed

Filed under: social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

Since its launch in 2010, Jacobin Magazine has shown up in one way or another in the NY Times 25 times. The references fall into different categories and are consistently supportive. You can see it cited as a barometer of left opinion with the conservative Catholic Russ Douhat being one such example. He wrote an op-ed on 12/29/2012 titled “How to Read in 2013” that advised his readers on how to stay on top of things:

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

I should add that the term neo-Marxist is often applied to Jacobin, although I am not sure that is the right word. Unlike Monthly Review that also earned that label rather unfairly, Jacobin functions much more as a host for articles written by both Marxists and left-liberals. Unlike the effort undertaken by Paul Sweezy or Harry Magdoff, I can’t discern any signs that the editorial board of Jacobin is devoted to renewing Marxist theory.

In line with Douhat’s demarcating the borders of what savvy NY Times readers should read (you can bet Monthly Review will remain unheralded), Jacobin has cropped up recently in a new feature titled “Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss” that remains within the same confines—ideological kettling, so to speak. The Times has a rather peculiar notion of what it means to be “left” since you find Jacobin and Alan Dershowitz cheek by jowl on the portside.

Another type of Jacobin manifestation is seen less often nowadays, especially since the magazine is quite well-established. In its first few years, you saw breathless encomiums to the “new left” journals such as Jacobin, n+1, and New Inquiry that were often touted in that order as if they were respectively “win, place and show” in a horse race. I have been subscribed to the first two magazines for seven years now and don’t expect to try the third, maybe because the name sounds too much like the rancid New Criterion.

On January 20, 2013, Jennifer Schuessler gushed over how “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. It gave you a good idea of how the gods were smiling on its founder:

“Bhaskar’s a really remarkable — I want to say kid, but that sounds condescending,” said the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who gave Jacobin a shout-out in Rolling Stone last June before inviting Mr. Sunkara onto his show. (Mr. Sunkara skipped part of his college graduation to appear.) “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.”

MSNBC? Rolling Stone? I can’t imagine Michael Yates or John Bellamy Foster traveling in such circles but then again they’re too busy trying to make revolutionary socialism relevant to our epoch through books and articles.

I emphasize the word revolutionary since it has a bearing on Bhaskar Sukara’s debut on the NY Times op-ed page, a sign of having “made it” in a highly competitive world. Except for former Marxism list moderator Zeynep Tukfeci who writes op-ed pieces about the Internet  (and who won’t even reply to a Twitter message I sent her), Bhaskar is the first Marxmail alumni who has elbowed his way to the top of the heap–you can’t get much more elevated than the NY Times op-ed page even if most of it is drivel. I doubt that the surly Michael Yates will ever get past the velvet rope with his blunt put-downs of the elite.

Now 28 years old, Bhaskar is advising NY Times readers about how “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past”. Jesus, what was I doing when I was 28? That was 1973 and I was in Houston organizing Militant Labor Forums. I had been in the Trotskyist movement for six years by then and never written a single article. Oh, let me take that back. I had written some for the internal bulletin of the SWP during pre-convention discussion on arcane matters such as how the Cochranites became embourgeoisified even though they were auto workers but I understood that the audience was limited. (Drawing my analysis from James P. Cannon on Bert Cochran, I could have not been more wrong.) I guess the only benefit I got out of writing for internal bulletins is that it sharpened my polemical skills. If I had to make a choice between writing effective polemics for a narrow audience trying to figure out how to develop a revolutionary strategy and getting touted in the Rolling Stone, there’s no contest.

So  let’s accompany our neo-Marxist wunderkind Bhaskar on his stroll through 100 years of class struggle history. He tried to convey a short form of this on Twitter but without much success, I’m afraid.

Things start off problematically enough:

One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags, the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd.

Now a serious neo-Marxist might have taken the trouble to elucidate the exact linkage between Lenin and Stalin but—jeez—this is the NY Times op-ed page, not New Left Review. In brief, the events that led to Stalin’s gulags had nothing to do with Lenin. They were the result of a brutal imperialist invasion that cost the lives of up to 12,000,000 civilians and massive economic losses. Wikipedia states that the industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. During this catastrophe, one of the greatest losses was that of the most conscious revolutionaries who rushed to join the Red Army and defend the socialist gains of 1917. When they died in combat, it left a vacuum filled by former officials of the Czarist bureaucracy that became Stalin’s chief base of support. All of this is explained in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky, a book that I doubt Bhaskar will ever have time to read given the demands made on his time selling subscriptions and raising funds.

Sounding like he was 58 rather than 28, Bhaskar strikes a repentant note:

Most socialists have been chastened by the lessons of 20th-century Communism. Today, many who would have cheered on the October Revolution have less confidence about the prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation. They put an emphasis instead on political pluralism, dissent and diversity.

I suppose he is right about “most socialists” since by his definition that includes an “avowedly socialist” leader like Bernie Sanders. This might be the heart of the problem. I don’t consider Sanders a socialist at all. He is a left-liberal of the MSNBC variety and uses the term socialist in the way I used to hear the term selling subscriptions to the Militant newspaper in college dorms a lifetime ago. Since the masthead of the paper described it as a “socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people”, the first question out of the mouth of the student tended to be something like “Socialist, like in Sweden?” I had no problem telling them, “No, like in Cuba”. As I said, this was a lifetime ago. Back then, an hour spent in a Columbia dorm would result in 25 subscriptions. That was when Che Guevara was alive and kicking, the Black community was rising up against the cops and the National Guard, and the Vietnamese were fighting the anti-imperialist battle of the century. Clearly the lack of such objective conditions has made Bhaskar more cautious than I was when young but then again there have always been people like him looking to make a career on the left.

After warning his readers about the hazards facing the working class that range from neoliberal Singapore to neo-fascist Hungary, Bhaskar offers up a vision of socialism that probably wouldn’t frighten any but the most well-heeled NY Times reader:

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

Is socialism really an ideology of radical democracy? I suppose it is in the sense that the rule of the people entails the abolition of private property that has been undermining even bourgeois democracy over the past 30 years or so. As far as “civil society” being empowered to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives, this strikes me as an utterly amorphous formula. Civil society cannot begin to address the economic inequalities that allows both George Soros and the Koch brothers to control the electoral process. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I would propose that it is high time for the left to begin raising one of Trotsky’s transitional demands:

The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, in answer to the pathetic jeremiads of the gentlemen democrats anent the dictatorship of the “60 Families” of the United States or the “200 Families” of France, we counterpose the demand for the expropriation of those 60 or 200 feudalistic capitalist overlords.

In precisely the same way, we demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.

I would say that the call for nationalizing the railroads and the sources of raw materials will resonate with many Americans, given the miserable state of Amtrak and the damage that fracking does to our health. I may not use the same language as Leon Trotsky but advocate the left trying to figure out the way to say the same thing but in the words ordinary people understand.

By contrast, Bhaskar’s call for a worker-owned cooperatives competing in a regulated market sounds rather weak-tea by comparison. I doubt that any Fortune 500 company will care very much that, for example, the old Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago is now a worker-owned cooperative. It is not as if such an operation will not benefit the people who work there but it has nothing to do with challenging capitalist property relations. If, on the other hand, the left was powerful enough to make a difference, it would have pushed for the nationalization of the banking system in 2008.

How did the left become so impotent that it was not able to manifest its opposition to the economic system except by occupying public spaces in a rather noble but impotent gesture that anarchists argued as a “prefiguration” of the future communist world? It is a sad story that I have been telling since 1991 when I first got on the Internet. The Marxist left had a sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA. We still need a party like Lenin built but it will have to emerge out of the mass movement that will be gathering momentum as capitalism continues to sink to new lows. A major step in building that movement will be creating an alternative to the Democratic Party that so many people still have illusions in, starting with the Jacobin editorial board.

Blog at WordPress.com.